Thursday, October 30, 2014

Captured on Film, Part 3 -- Stark's Cabins

Some of you may have noticed last month was the first month since September 2011 that this blog lay fallow. At the last, I was out and about around Superior wrestling with the Nikon through a brief window of autumn weather so splendid that if we'd ever seen the like back in the day when each autumn Johnny, Heather & I bustered around the place trying not to get in too much trouble but only just enough, it'd now be revered as the halcyon days of our youth.

Standing together in contemplation of all that late season Northwoods splendor, a dear friend helpfully suggested You've still got a few days... But I wanted no part of that. Starting work in September then finally playing hooky in September three years later had suitable symmetry and I very much needed to be full in the moment without needing to think about translating that down for you on deadline.

I pushed both myself and the Nikon hard. It purred. Next time out I'll have to push it harder. After the first of the year, we'll examine what I did.

In the meantime we'll just stick with an established theme. Film is dead. Long live film and the ghosts captured with it...

All images scanned from 4x5 transparency film

I call these Stark's Cabins because on U.S. 2 near Watersmeet 40 miles or so to the east, Stark's Cabins Restaurant and Trout Pond was run by James Stark and his wife Molly from 1946 to their retirement in 1984.  Maybe this strikingly similar set of roadside tourist cabins near Wakefield was never owned by James and Molly Stark. Maybe there came a time when most cabins in the region were built this way and at that time there was for some reason a lot of red paint to be had cheap. There're a couple more like these, now outbuildings on a spread between Wakefield and Marenisco and also hard to the road.

Anyway, Stark's Cabins these'll always be to me. One thing's pretty certain -- the cabins near Wakefield closed before my time on the Range, which began in earnest circa 1978. In my time, I believe these were always derelict.

1946 was the first year without a World War in quite the while. America was flush and stood astride the known Universe. Our love for the automobile and the open road blossomed, as new and luxurious touring cars were introduced at prices we could afford, when paid for on time. Kinda like this beauty, though I can't vouch for the model year:

Throughout the great northern wilderness, roads had been cut and facilities built back during that brief time between World Wars when Depression struck and government put citizens to work making improvements to government land in order to help save the country from wrack and ruin. Many of the facilities constructed by the C.C.C. still stand as gorgeous examples of American craftsmanship, but those aren't why we're here today.

By 1946 we'd hit the road in earnest and have yet to stop.

Born 1896 in Vienna Austria, James Stark had in the meantime made his way to the northern wilderness by way of Wisconsin, where he'd married the young Molly Harper. They owned a potato farm for a while but eventually turned to logging then apparently followed the fallen forest north to Watersmeet. Near some of the last remaining old growth forest in the region, they staked a permanent claim.

In 1946 the Mighty Mac was still just a dream and the U.P. remained the edge of the stinkin' world, cut off on two sides by two Great Lakes and the formidable channel between them.

It was a long drive to there from anywhere. But when you finally arrived at what's today the surviving remnant of that aforementioned old growth forest (the famous Sylvania Wilderness), James and Holly Stark were there to greet you with the latest in Northwoods style, one-stop shopping roadside convenience. Even a trout pond, in case you really didn't care to venture beyond sight of the road for to catch some of those.

I worked this set of cabins near Wakefield on and off through the years. James and Holly's verifiable cabins out near Watersmeet got torn down before I got serious.

The thing that tickles me most about these is that in their heyday, they came festooned with neon. Neon! Just imagine evenings spent with the bzztt bzzzt bzzzt of glowing tubes drawing cumulus clouds of an all but unimaginable variety of insects while secure in rough but modern creature comfort, fly strips swinging gently in the summer breeze, you lifting bourbon in a metal cup in honor of Northwoods glories past, present and yet to come.

I'd have given a lot, to have seen these cabins properly lit up just once. Look closely, that light fixture is about half-filled with dead flies and so much for yellow bug lights, eh?

These cabins near Wakefield proved deceptively difficult to shoot. Bad light, lousy timing, mostly. Then in 2005 I was determined. It was a Red Flag Day when the light felt right, the kind of day that 130 or so some odd years before Chicago had burnt right to the ground.

And for the first time ever my old Bogen tripod betrayed me as the 40+ mph breeze that shook the woods shook the Linhof too and most of the images from that set into terminal softness, two of which I've included here just the same. Armed with a great new tripod, a couple years later I returned to finally seal the deal with Stark's Cabins. Except in the interim, this set of vintage roadside tourist cabins had been bulldozed then got burnt to the ground.

James Stark died on June 16th, 1984 in Watersmeet. Holly Stark followed her husband on March 4th, 1988. From their union came three daughters, 28 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and Stark's Cabins, Restaurant and Trout Pond. Having put themselves in the right place at the right time and willing to meet opportunity with industry, together they served adventurous Northwoods travelers for nearly 40 years.


Though I never stayed in the cabins, ate at the restaurant or fished the trout pond, I nevertheless have a related story...

Johnny, Heather and I annually rented our big-assed Grumman aluminum canoe from Sylvania Outfitters in Watersmeet. Heather and I rode one of those into the Bear Story. I've long since owned my own canoe but Bob Zelinski has run his place now for more than 40 years and I recommend him to you. It may even be that Stark's old trout pond is hard by Bob's parking lot, I don't rightly recall.

One year back in the day I'd traveled from Bobcat over to Watersmeet to rent our canoe and found the shop closed. I wandered over to a sizeable building nearby, hoping to inquire. I recall the inside as something of a rectangular shed full of miscellaneous stuff and noticeably dim, with shafts of light from the bright day outside intruding to catch dust dancing in the air.

At the far end of the building two bent old ladies dressed in dark clothes sat together at a table, listening intently to a radio. I excused myself. They didn't look up. Uncertain but about half desperate, I stepped forward and excused myself again, thinking perhaps they'd not heard me over the din of the radio.

They replied in unison, with sharp glance and even sharper SSHHHH!!!

I'd not realized they were playing radio Bingo. Hell, until that moment I'd not realized there was radio Bingo. In time I was allowed to make my apologies, received the information I needed and ended up back at Bobcat with that season's canoe. For years I thought the story was about radio Bingo.

Today I'm pretty sure that building was what remained of John and Holly Stark's restaurant.

And though I can't say for certain, I prefer to believe that one of the old ladies who so admonished me that day was the estimable Holly Stark, widow of James Stark, who with her husband once upon a time made a fine life together in the woods.

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